Star critics run through what’s impressed them this year
VISUAL ARTS with MIKE QUILLE
ARTIST and Empire at Tate Britain is a shaming reminder of how art can be complicit in the imperialist project, legitimising and even glorifying racism, exploitation and political subordination.
Maps, flags, paintings, photographs and sculpture represent the British empire but today paintings of heroic white men being overwhelmed by hordes of jihadists seem both pathetic in their obvious ideological bias and depressingly prophetic. What has changed, one wonders, in the dominant view of other peoples?
But there are exceptions to the prostitution of art to reactionary politics. Rudolf Swoboda’s sympathetic portraits of empire’s subjects reveal elements of doubt, even guilt, at imperial conquest.
And the contemporary pieces waste no time in demolishing and ironicising Britain’s “civilising mission.”
Such politically aware curating was not much in evidence at the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy, where you might have the impression that the Chinese artist was fighting a heroic struggle against oriental tyranny — rather like the “last stand” paintings in Artist and Empire.
The choice and interpretations of Ai’s artworks show how the art world is still oriented towards supporting the dominant political agenda of Western imperialism but in a slightly more subtle way than the artists represented at the Tate.
There were some intelligently conceived and beautifully executed works in it, however. Strong and striking concepts inform his installations and he has a great feel for the texture and materiality of found objects.
Contrary to the prevailing critical view, his art mostly expresses and celebrates not individualistic political dissidence but the ancient, communist vision of individuals living in social solidarity.
The Amber Collective’s For Ever Amber exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, a small fraction (pictured) of their photographic and film archive, was an outstanding record of the destruction of social solidarity in the north over the last 50 years.
Some images were angry, full of argument and protest. Many others were gentle, reflective and compassionate portrayals of the poor, the young and the powerless.
The humanist and collectivist approach of Amber photographers, often embedding themselves for months in solidarity with communities where they were working, brought out the sheer beauty, importance and meaningfulness of lives spent at the margins — women grouped round a fire on a seacoalers’ beach, unemployed youths playing on waste ground and striking miners’ families resisting state aggression.
Shift, the exhibition of work by Alysia Anne, also at the Laing Gallery until February, bravely tackles the complexities of grief, depression and loss.
She manipulates blocks of colour and darkness from processed polaroids into fragmentary but cohesive arrangements against stark white gallery walls, subtly but insistently suggesting confusion, denial and despair.
The main focus is on “complicated grief,” characteristic of advanced capitalist societies, when the emotion itself is lost, buried or inhibited by an uncaring, work-oriented world which ignores and disrupts the strengths of human sociality and collectivity.
The ghost-like forms and the halting, uncertain progression of images evoke “privatised grief” sublimely well in this emotionally powerful, sensitive and involving exhibition.
SCOTLAND with CHRIS BARTTER
2015 in Scotland has been dominated by celebratory events marking extraordinary talent, starting with the Celtic Connections festival and Blood and Roses, a concert marking the centenary of Ewan MacColl. There was a “thank-you” concert for Arthur Johnstone, celebrating 50 years of his contribution to people’s struggles, featuring a multi-talented cast from all over the British Isles.
Surviving members of Johnstone’s former group The Laggan were reunited and the increasingly important singer Siobhan Miller and the “nicest man in folk” Tommy Sands also featured.
The MacColl connection stretched over the year as his widow Peggy Seeger along with sons — and centenary concert organisers — Calum and Neill MacColl toured Britain in her 80th year.
Another anniversary marked during the festival was that of WWI, most notably via the poignant story in Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle. The instrument, put aside in pieces when its maker went to the war and not completed until the 21st century as he never returned, was the inspiration for a particularly appropriate marriage of story and music.
WWI was also remembered for the rent strike in Glasgow, when women across the city rose up against the landlords’ greedy increases, eventually defeating them by direct action against sheriffs’ officers and court cases.
This was celebrated by guided walks through Glasgow both during September’s Doors Open Day and during the MayDay celebrations in the City. The theme is to be continued into next year with a gala concert to raise money to complete a statue to one of the key leaders of the rent strike, Mary Barbour.
Other Mayday events included From the Calton to Catalonia, a rehearsed reading of Willie and John Maley’s play about their father’s experiences as an international brigader which then toured and the MayDay cabaret brought Elvis McGonagall up from Dorset and Irish singer Tommy Sands back to headline.
Freed from the straitjacket of the referendum, 2015’s Edinburgh Festivals diversified more than a little. Yet again the international festival stole the show with Rona Munro’s The James Plays (pictured), which will tour Britain from February on, plus the noteworthy Confessions of a Justified Sinner with Paul Bright.
The fringe’s politics were more varied, covering communist spies (The Communist Threat), Joan Littlewood (Joan, Babs and Shelagh Too) and stand-up comedy on the Labour leadership elections (Mark Steel).
Two of the less political but enjoyable pieces were The Periodic Fable — panto science for kids — and Captain Beefheart tribute band Orange Claw Hammer.
MacBraveheart, a former smash at 2014’s fringe, toured Scotland’s towns in the autumn. Rewritten to take account of the referendum result and other developments, it remains laugh-out-loud funny and will surely reappear.
Scotland is seeing a remarkable rise in the use of film to put across stories and messages.
A new film festival appeared in November, the Havana/Glasgow Film Festival. It got off to a flying start, as it should in a city that’s famous for cinema attendances, with some excellent films and appearances by Cuban filmmakers, notably the first-rate director Fernando Perez
The Cinema Action film made inside the UCS work-in got a showing in a joint Hope not Hate, People’s Assembly and Morning Star event and demonstrated that now, as 40 years ago, the secret to successful struggle is in collective action that unites communities.
BOOKS with SUE TURNER
A STAND-OUT book for me this year was Andrew Brooks’s Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes, a fast-paced and highly readable exposure of the global clothing industry.
Impressive in its range, it provides a global and historical perspective on the production of new clothing, highlighting the ecological damage that the cultivation and processing of cotton produces as well as describing workers’ conditions in all aspects of production.
And it shows the detrimental effect of the international trade in second-hand clothes on indigenous textile industries and the need for workers to own their means of production.
Another noteworthy read was Harry Leslie Smith’s Love Among the Ruins: Memoir of Life and Love in Hamburg, 1945.
Smith had been an RAF wireless operator during the war and was sent to Hamburg as part of the occupation forces in 1945. He found a city from which 1,000,000 people had fled, another 1,000,000 were homeless and over 50,000 civilians were dead, due in no small part to the Allied bombing of 1943 and the ensuing firestorms.
The book recounts the progress of his relationship with a German girl, Friede, their eventual marriage and arrival in England.
It’s a story of two young people who lived through and dealt with extraordinary times. He describes the humiliating process that Friede was forced to undergo in order to marry him, with her character, politics and sexual morals all questioned, as well as her motives for marriage.
German civilians have generally been reluctant to talk about their wartime suffering, fearing an unsympathetic if not a downright hostile reception. But Leslie Smith became aware of this suffering through his friendship with Friede.
Life worsened dramatically during the post-war occupation and his direct style in describing the daily struggles of the Hamburg people creates an understanding of the aftermath of defeat. A poignant read.
MUSIC with PETER LINDLEY
NILS FRAHM’S appearance in the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall was an inspiration musically, being just about the most interesting programme by any live performer this year.
As the concert demonstrated, Frahm has deservedly made his mark due to his musicianship, experimentation and sumptuous harmonic compositions.
In terms of modern classical music reaching new audiences — and insomniacs — the live eight-hour Sleep composition for BBC Radio 3 by Max Richter caused widespread delight, not only because of the nocturnal musical ebb and flow but also due to the musicians seamlessly gliding by and dropping in and out of the non-stop all-nighter.
Experimental ambient music also had a stand-out moment at the Barbican with Etudes, written and performed for piano by Philip Glass.
It was the year’s most transcendental series of quiet moments, with the Etudes 5 and 6 played with scrupulous control and affection by Vikingur Olafsson.
Underworld at Hammersmith Apollo provided raucous, loud and completely out-of-your-skin dance music which ranked up the decibels and bpms for a performance of dubnobasswithmyheadman.
It was a performance of electronic music like no other, although the outdoor rave to reclaim Clapham Common by Faithless and the Chemical Brothers’ performance at the Roundhouse were nearly, but not quite, as wild.
With that trio propelling the storming force of electronic music and dance forward and with Aphex Twins fiddling about with the Mercury Music Prize with the brilliant album Syro, the year has had its fair share of renaissance moments for resurgent post-ravers.
And it’s been a coming of age for the final wave of true electronic musicians, marked by New Order’s fantastic recent performances, culminating in a blisteringly fine night at Manchester’s Warehouse Project.